5th March, 2017 – 27th March, 2017
‘No danger, only adventure.’ Chandra Bahadur Tamang (quipped as we headed out across the rotting, often repaired suspension bridge)
Nepal marked the beginning of our four month adventure, for which my boyfriend Chris and I had given up our jobs, our rented house and put all our belongings in storage. As official nomads, we arrived in the overwhelming city of Kathmandu, to prepare for a few days before our trek around the Annapurna Circuit. Kathmandu overwhelms the senses from the first moment you get in the airport taxi. Somewhat similar to large Indian cities, I have been told, the cacophony of horns blaring, a complete disregard for any traffic rules and the hazy smog certainly prevented any jet lag drowsiness.
I can say with certainty, that it was with no love lost when we departed from Kathmandu with our Nepali guide Chandra and his cousin, Pancha, our hero porter (you can find Chandra’s website here https://www.facebook.com/TamangTrekking/). I would recommend getting a local guide 100%. We booked Chandra directly via email (email@example.com) , so we were even happier to have made some savings by cutting out the middle man of various touting trek companies. Quite simply, having a local guide helps to smooth any stresses, while also providing the advantage of getting to know the local language and culture first hand. We were lucky enough that Chandra was very happy to educate us in Nepali (and particularly Nepali Buddhist) culture. For example, he invited us to meet his family in his flat in Kathmandu, both before and after our trek, where we shared a meal of dal bhat (translated: lentil soup rice, the staple diet of every Nepali family – and when I say staple, I mean eaten every single lunch and dinner with no qualms about lack of variety whatsoever).
Chandra’s favourite topic to regale us with was his explanation of the wide spread corruption which occurs within Nepal. These explanations were often paired hand in hand with enthusiastic miming of holding a wodge of money in one hand and sliding it into the inside pocket of a jacket. I think that it is living within this system which has inevitably contributed to the fatalist ke garne attitude of some Nepali. Meaning “what to do” given with a shrug of the shoulders, this phrase was often used. After Chandra’s various explanations of the difficulty of breaking out of the poorer wage bracket, without already being within that influential circle of corruption, I started to see why trying to ignore such social problems with a shrug of the shoulders would become tempting.
Interestingly, this culture difference between ke garne and perhaps the more entitled, western perception of “I want this so I will make it happen now”, came to light when our trek along the Annapurna Circuit was unfortunately cut short by unseasonable snowfall blocking the Thorong La pass, our aim at 5400m. On day 5, with news of avalanches and people getting snowed into their tea houses filtering down through the mountains, many tourists were making the decision to cut their losses and turn back. Chris and I were among them in this decision. We still had enough time to turn back and achieve some smaller treks in the Poon Hill region. This revealed our “something is wrong, but we can do something about it” attitude, in comparison to Chandra who (understandably) was disappointed we were giving up on the Thorong La goal so quickly and suggested we kept going and wait it out and see. This ke garne approach to thick snowfall and avalanches did not pass muster with our anxious, risk adverse English minds!
Alas, our determination to take fate into our own hands was clearly considered comic, as the morning of our departure down the mountain again, we got news of a huge rock having fallen onto the path which the pre-booked jeep had intended to drive. With some appreciation for the ke garne phrase, we donned our walking boots again and made a speedy descent, covering just over 20 km, in the hopes that once we made our way around the rock we could find a jeep in time to take us down the same day. Eventually one with enough space inside picked us up and we begun our bumpy descent. The 4 by 4 skillfully manoeuvred over pothole after pothole while inside the jeep, two young curious Nepali men quizzed Chris and me about the parts of English culture which they found fascinating. Including, but not limited to: my divorced parents (and who I sided with, not having a side seemed impossible; that Chris and I were living together but not married and that English people do not have one staple meal, but do in fact eat different things everyday!)
It was with some satisfaction, a few days later, when we had begun our Poon Hill trek, that news reached us that even a group from the army had been unable to cross the pass, therefore confirming that we had made the right decision.
Ironically, despite Chandra’s hatred for the upper elite and the circle of corruption, the old phrase, it is not what you know, but who you know, became relevant on the first day of our “second” trek. Throughout the Annapurna circuit there are various check posts with the goal of noting down which tourists are where in order to be able to keep track of progress and enable a quicker recovery if needed. It was therefore with some surprise on both our, and Chandra’s behalf that when we arrived at the new Poon Hill’s first check post, they declared we would need new passes because we had already used up our “entry”. As Chris cynically, but perhaps accurately, pointed out, if the supposed purpose of the check posts was for tourist safety, then our already having paid and entered at a different location should make no difference. Hey ho. No matter, Chandra was not conforming to the ke garne principle in this case and after thirty minutes of fruitless debate, he got on the phone. Turns out that some close relative of his is on the board of tourism management (the bosses of the check post organisation). Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, the magic wand of influence was waved and it was with some swagger than Chandra marched us onwards to complete a very enjoyable, if not the original, trek.
The final few days spent in Kathmandu were on the whole wished away. We were lucky enough to be invited back to Chandra’s flat for another meal with his family, where we traded pictures of our trek with photos of the eldest daughter’s wedding. Although I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Chandra and his family, the air pollution and overwhelming population in Kathmandu made me look forward to our next stop Gili Air in Indonesia, particularly as we knew cars were banned on the island. I therefore said goodbye to Nepal with more excitement than disappointment. Onwards to the next adventure I thought!